Pyramid = Problem and MyPlate = Mistake: A Brief History of Government Dietary Guidelines


 

“The thing to keep in mind about the USDA Pyramid is that it comes from the Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for promoting American agriculture, not from agencies established to monitor and protect our health…. What’s good for some agricultural interests is not necessarily good for the people who eat their products.” – Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health

In the last post we covered the simple scientific cause of the obesity epidemic: Incorrect nutritional guidance from our government being exploited by the food, pharmaceutical, and fitness industries to lower the quality of our eating and exercise habits. After all, a heavy and sick population is much more profitable than a healthy and fit population. Let’s now look at a brief history of how these garbled government guidelines came to be.

The original release of the government’s Dietary Guidelines—and subsequent Food Guide Pyramid and MyPlate graphics—came about because certain politicians were playing physicians. W.C. Willett with the Harvard School of Public Health notes: “Some recommendations on diet and nutrition are misguided because they are based on inadequate or incomplete information. That hasn’t been the case for the USDA’s pyramids. They are wrong because they brush aside evidence on healthful eating that has been carefully assembled over the past 40 years.” In the Journal of the American Physicians and Surgeons, researcher A. Ottoboni adds:

“There is considerable concern today that the diet the Pyramid illustrates is responsible for the current epidemic of cardiovascular disease. The concurrent epidemics of obesity and type-2 diabetes are unintended consequences that can also be attributed to this diet.”

How did the government come up with these Dietary Guidelines? J.B. German from the University of California has written: “At the time the 1980 guidelines were established, there was no solid basis for understanding what the consequences of such overall dietary changes would be for most persons.” The Dietary Guidelines and graphics were not drawn up by nutrition scholars. They were derived from a political document released in 1976 called Dietary Goals for the United States. The Dietary Goals was designed by the Senate Nutrition Committee to do two things:

  • “Increase carbohydrate consumption to account for 55% to 60% of calorie intake.”
  • “Reduce overall fat consumption from 40% to about 30% of calorie intake.”

 

 

These goals and the rest of the document are more speculative than scientific. For example, T.A. Sanders at King’s College London, notes, “The scientific basis for a reduction in the proportion of energy from fat below 30% is not supported by experimental evidence.”  A.S. Truswell from the University of Sydney tells us: “The first edition of Dietary Goals…took nutritionists by surprise…was written by a group of politically interested activists with small knowledge of nutrition…. The collected objections can be summarized very briefly: Too soon, more research needed, relationships not proved; politically motivated.” Here is what theAmerican Medical Association had to say when Dietary Goals was released: “There is a potential for harmful effects for a radical long term dietary change as would occur through adoption of the proposed national goals.” More blunt criticism was delivered by University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher A.E. Harper: “The dietary goals report is not scientifically sound: it is a political and moralistic document.” And finally, my favorite comes from the president of the National Academy of Sciences in his testimony to the Senate in regards to Dietary Goals: “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”

But despite being unproven and controversial among the scientific community, the government declared Dietary Goals “the truth” on these grounds: “We [the government] live in the present and cannot afford to await the ultimate proof before correcting trends we believe to be detrimental.” With that uneducated guess, a low-fat, low-protein, high-starch diet was declared “healthy.” Sadly, the results have been anything but.

 

Millions of US Hospital Discharges for Cardiovascular Disease

 

Percent of Americans at Least Overweight

 

“The low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet recommended by the…USDA Food Guide Pyramid may be among the worst eating strategies for someone who is overweight…. People on low-fat diets generally lose about two to four pounds after several weeks, but then gain that weight back even while continuing with the diet. Randomized trials of weight loss usually show little net weight changes after a year.” – The Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health

Millions of American with Diabetes

 

Millions of US Non-Fatal Heart Disease Incidents

 

The way most North Americans are being encouraged to eat today is wrong. There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that by eating a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet, you will get healthier and thinner. Instead, there is ample evidence to support the fact that a diet too low in fat may eventually lead to adverse health consequences, especially an increase in heart disease—amazingly, the main problem a diet low in fat was supposed to solve. – Dr. Fred Pescatore

Maybe it’s time for congressmen to stop pretending to be cardiologists. But I digress.

To understand why the Senate Nutrition Committee gave us these Dietary Goals in the first place, we have to go back a few more decades. One man single-handedly convinced the country that natural foods are deadly. We’ll cover that in the next post.

“The low-fat-high-carbohydrate diet, promulgated [promoted] vigorously by the…U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid can no longer be defended by appeal to the authority of prestigious medical organizations or by rejecting clinical experience and a growing medical literature.” – S.L. Weinberg, Dayton Heart Hospital

PS First there was Dietary Goals (1976), then came the Dietary Guidelines (1980), the Food Guide Pyramid (1992), MyPyramid (2005) and finally MyPlate (2011). Additionally, since the release of the original Dietary Guidelines, the government has re-released the same basic guidance every five years.


  1. “Appendix I: History of Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Health.gov | Your Portal to Health Information from the U.S. Government. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2010. <http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga95/12dietap.htm>.
  2. Carter, James P. Eating in America; Dietary Goals for the United States; Report of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, U.S. Senate: MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1977. No price Am J Trop Med Hyg 1978 27: 369-b-370
  3. Council for Responsible Nutrition . Resolution endorsing dietary goals for the United States presented to members of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. May 12, 1977. Comm. Nutr. Inst. Weekly Report 7, No. 21 , p.4, 1977.
  4. Dietary goals for the United States: statement of the American Medical Association to the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, United States Senate. R I Med J. 1977 Dec;60(12):576-81. PubMed PMID: 272018.
  5. German JB, Dillard CJ. Saturated fats: what dietary intake? Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Sep;80(3):550-9. Review. PubMed PMID: 15321792.
  6. Harper AE. Dietary goals-a skeptical view. Am J Clin Nutr. 1978 Feb;31(2):310-21. Review. PubMed PMID: 341685.
  7. Ottoboni A, Ottoboni F. The Food Guide Pyramid: will the defects be corrected? J Am Phys Surg 2004;9:109-113.
  8. P.J. Skerrett, and W.C. Willett. Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating. Free Press Trade Pbk. Ed ed. New York City: Free Press, 2005. Print.
  9. Sanders TA. High- versus low-fat diets in human diseases. Curr Opin Clin Nutr  Metab Care. 2003 Mar;6(2):151-5. Review. PubMed PMID: 12589184.
  10. Truswell AS. Evolution of dietary recommendations, goals, and guidelines. Am J Clin Nutr. 1987 May;45(5 Suppl):1060-72. Review. PubMed PMID: 3554965.
  11. U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Dietary goals for the United States. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing office, 1977.
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